Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The truth about Zim land reform?

An IDS fellow (with others) has written a book about land reform in Zimbabwe. The book is causing ripples in the media by challenging some of the myths around Zimbabwean land reform. Like the myth that only the elite were given land. Or the myth that no-one is growing anything Zimbabwe. The book suggests that it wasn’t all bad, or at least that it isn’t all bad now. Fair enough. But before everyone decides that Zimbabwe is actually doing okay, there are a few things (from the articles written to accompany/support the book) that should be considered.

According to these articles/the study, at independence in 1980, 15m hectares were dedicated to large-scale commercial farming in Zimbabwe – roughly 6000 commercial farms.  By 1999, this was down to 12m hectares, partly as a result of a land-redistribution programme funded by the British government.  Today, roughly 4m hectares are being commercially farmed, some large estates, such as sugar-estates mentioned in the article. And crop production has suffered as a result:


Crops that have suffered: forex-earners tobacco, coffee and tea, staples wheat and maize and important export beef. Some years maize production has been as low as 31% of 1990s levels. 
Crops that have improved: Small grains such as edible dry bean, cotton (yes, the same cotton the market for which has been on the decline in recent years).

The study focuses in on Masvingo province (rather than simply considering the aggregate numbers). In this province about 28% of land has been transferred through the Fast-Track Land Reform Programme. This tr transformed mostly large cattle farms into 32500 small farms (36 hectares or 36 000 square metres). 1m hectares remain large-scale commercial operations. An area doesn’t remain a successful cattle-ranching area in a market-driven environment unless it is ideally suited to raising cattle. Is it possible to raise cattle in a commercially viable manner in 36 hectares? The answer is probably ‘no’. Much of the land has been cleared to small-farm basic crops.

An analysis of the situation of families on these resettled farms shows only 56.4% of families succeeding to the point where they were able to accumulate assets (so were doing more than just surviving). The rest? They were losing, possibly in part because of the general economic situation of a country which regularly runs out of the fuel needed to run agricultural implements and to cook, light and heat homes. 10% were dropping out and leaving their new farms as a result of a combination of chronic poverty and ill-health. Many of those who were starting to accumulate assets but not yet thriving as farmers (not yet commercially viable?) were surviving as a result of other livelihood strategies ranging from remittances to illegal, unsafe or transient activities. Some of those are supported by patronage because they are party ‘cronies’ although this seems to amount to only about 5% of land transfers in this region.

Since the resettlement began, there has been virtually no external support for farmers – the government has failed to invest in these new farms. Resettlement in this area appears to have created a class of “‘petty commodity producers’ and ‘worker peasants’".

The study asks ‘who got the land?’ and is surprised by the answer: ordinary people. Many of those who have been settled on small plots of land used to be restricted to communal (farming?) land or urban (casual?) labour. Little detail is given about these people. For the rest, 16.5% were civil servants and 4.8% business people, who mostly got the larger (commercial-sized) or self-contained farms (i.e. are more likely to be commercially viable). The civil servants were often teachers, agricultural extension officers or local government officials. Perhaps it is presumptuous to say so, not being an expert, but these people sound like they fall well within the range of middle-class party supporters in most African countries. They are ordinary people. So are most of Mugabe’s supporters. One wonders if the study was able to find any evidence of MDC supporters being allocated farms?

The articles are also very enthusiastic about the fact that “land previously occupied by a single farmer... is now being used by a highly diverse group of people.” If that is the measure of good, it is not surprising that land reform comes off much better than previously thought.

Unsurprisingly, settlers have invested in their new plots, for example, clearing brush in order to plough and building houses. Investment in stock has been significant (ranging from cattle to goats and pigs) resulting in an animal per hectare ratio much higher than it used to be when the land was under cattle farming. One hopes someone is working with the communities to deal with problems like overgrazing and desertification. There are also serious problems with animal-diseases and lack of veterinary services.

Agricultural output over the years studied is also reviewed. The study suggests that, in good rainfall years, the proportion of households producing enough maize to feed a family for a year was ‘significant’. This suggests that, with assistance of inputs like fertilizer, seed and agricultural implements, small farms might - provided there is no drought - sustain subsistence farming. It seems highly unlikely this will produce the “smallholder-based agricultural revolution” that is suggested.

A narrow analysis of the livelihood situation on resettled farms in one area of Zimbabwe shows that 56.4 % of the ‘ordinary people’ are able to survive on the (mostly) small plots of land they have been allocated. In return, Zimbabwe’s formerly thriving economy, heavily reliant on agriculture for export and eating, has collapsed and the country has become an international pariah: isolated, abandoned and broke. Having a diverse group of people on the land, having many people farming instead of a few and using agriculture as a job-creation tactic may sound like good ideas, but if they result in the majority of people – or even just those in cities – seriously suffering because they are unable to afford food and/or the economy collapses, they’re probably not the best possible public policy decision.

This study sounds useful because it could provide a detailed picture of what is currently happening and give an indication of what small successes can be built upon in the tough struggle to resurrect the Zimbabwean agricultural sector. It also addresses some misconceptions that apparently exist about Zimbabwe. It should not be used to justify the land grabs that have had such a devastating effect on the country. Nor should it be a crutch to political figures who wish to suggest that moving from successful, commercial farming to small-holdings - especially when farming provides a large proportion of economic activity - is a good economic strategy.

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